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Creating An A+ Legacy For District Students

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Tiffany Johnson teaches math and reading to students with disabilities
at Ron Brown Middle School.
Kavitha Cardoza
Tiffany Johnson teaches math and reading to students with disabilities at Ron Brown Middle School.

Teachers in the District go through a lengthy evaluation process each year, and the best of the best are offered bonuses of up to $25,000. This year, some also are getting an increase in their base salary of up to $18,000. So what do those teachers do that makes them worth all that dough?

To find out, spend a day in the classroom with Tiffany Johnson, a math and reading teacher for students with disabilities at Ron Brown Middle School who was awarded a bonus for being an "highly effective" teacher this year. This is Johnson's eighth year as an educator, and on most days she's constantly on the move.

"I plan to work from bell to bell," she says. "There's no idle time."

Understanding students' needs

Her teaching style involves hard work and dedication. On this particular day, Johnson moves around the class, helping students individually, even as she watches one child solve a problem on the board. She jokes and hugs them, frequently checks to see whether they've understood and lavishes praise when they get an answer right.

Johnson says she understands the chaos some of her students live in. She grew up near a crack house in New York, and her family was so dysfunctional she was sent to live with her grandmother when she was 11-years-old. She says this makes her even more aware of how she sets the tone in her classroom.

"Teachers can do a lot," she says. "Having a stable classroom, allowing kids to experience a safe haven. If they're having trouble at school, I always tell them, this is the difference between home and school. You're supposed to be safe. There's order here."

Part of the reason Johnson earned the title of "highly effective" teacher is because she was able to show impressive gains on standardized tests in the District. When she first got her students, they were at a 2 percent proficiency rate. By the time they left her, they had improved to a 30 percent proficiency rate.

Johnson's students are all in the seventh grade. But academically, that's not where they are; in fact, one student tested at the kindergarten level this year. She says it's frustrating because for years, they've been passed along. When she  meets her students at the beginning of the year, she'll ask them what did they in elementary school. The kids tell her they sat in front of computers, did crossword puzzles, colored in coloring books, and played games.

"It's like, how do you sit a child in the classroom and do absolutely nothing with them," she wonders.

Educating inside and outside the classroom

Johnson says the secret to her success is her colleagues and administrators at Ron Brown Middle School, with whom she frequently collaborates. She dismisses those who say there is too much to cover and so little time.

"August 10 to June 17," says Johnson. "That's 10 months of instruction. That's more than enough time. By the time you get to May, you should start teaching them standards and skills for the next grade level. There's no excuse." 

Not making excuses often means not all her work happens in the classroom. Johnson works four hours more each day than she's expected to, and that's not counting time spent calling every student's home or planning the next day's lessons.

"My kids know if they want to get there early, I'm here," she says. "If they want to stay after school, I'm here. I do home visits. Sometimes I go on Saturdays, and the parent is just as shocked as the child. I take it very serious."

Challenging herself to challenge students

Johnson says she spends a lot of time reflecting on her teaching and trying to improve. If a child curses in her class, she makes a mental note to ask him later what's going on at home. If another walks out in the middle of a lesson, she tries harder the next day to show her she's valued. If she notices students tuning out, she tries to change the lesson so it's more interactive.

"It's extremely stressful," Johnson says. "'Cause you have a lot of pressure on you. Everything is a test, test, test, test, test. Gains, gains, gains, gains, gains."

Johnson recently received a $20,000 increase to her $62,000 salary. In addition, she's received a $15,000 dollar bonus. When she first heard the news, she was thrilled.

"I was like, 'okay, I'm going to stay. You don't have to beg me. I'm going to stay right now,'" she says. "It was just a reward, like nothing is in vain."

Johnson says she excitedly called her principal, colleagues and family with the news. Afterwards, she spent some of the money buying her students new uniforms and class supplies. She paid off some of the mother's bills. As for the rest, she's planning to save it for the future.

Right now, she's focused on seeing whether her students understand today's lesson -- on integers -- but also showing them that she does truly care about them. "I want them to see outside those gates," she says. "I want them to see the other side of life."

Bonus Amount Number Eligible for Bonus Number Accepted Bonus
Less than $10,000 431 286
$10,000-15,000 231 182
$20,000 7 5
$25,000 1 1
Total 670 474


Years of Service Credit Number Eligible for Service Credit Number Accepted Service Credit
3 years 187 150
5 years 105 85
Total 292 235

Photos: Creating an A+ Legacy for District Students


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